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close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart II: The Aral Sea
close this folder5. the Aral Sea and socio-economic development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe technical system of cotton monoculture
View the documentThe cotton swindle
View the documentEnvironmental problems and human health
View the documentThe problem of pesticide pollution
View the documentThe environment of the Aral Sea and international cooperation
View the documentThe future of Central Asia
View the documentRecommendations
View the documentReferences

The environment of the Aral Sea and international cooperation

Overview of the situation

The Uzbek Academy of Sciences says that a new desert has been created to the south and east of the Aral Sea, and has already expanded to 5 million hectares. It is spreading more rapidly across Central Asian countries than the Sahara desert. The new desert, which is expanding at the rate of 150,000 hectares every year, could be called a "white desert" because the toxic salt pans encrust its surface after merging with the Karakum (black desert), Kyzylkum (red desert), and other deserts.

Fishing villages once on the shore are now between 30 and 80 km from the shoreline. All sea life has died, and fishing communities have been destroyed. When I visited Bugun, once a fishing village at the mouth of Syrdarya, in 1991, former fishermen were working in factories smoking and packing sea fish. The fish came from distant Atlantic fisheries such as Murmansk by train with no concern for the cost. This was an unemployment policy on a large scale at the end of the Soviet Union.

The cooling effect that the sea used to have on the hot summers of Central Asia has diminished, cutting rainfall and accelerating desertification processes in the region. Chemicals used on irrigated fields drain into the Sea, sink to the seabed, and form toxic salt pans as the Sea dries. The chemicals are then lifted into the atmosphere by winds and later fall on the area in rain, causing high rates of infant mortality and sickness. Eight or nine times a year, dust storms drop 5 million tons of salt, sand, and dust on Central Asia. The sky becomes obscured by a salty curtain, and the sun turns crimson and disappears behind the salt dust. Not one tree grows on the land, and livestock are perishing. The people, too, get sick and die.

Two views on the fate of the Aral Sea

The conclusion may be that the regeneration of the Aral Sea is not an option because far greater economic benefit can be derived from the use of river water for irrigation than from its runoff into the Aral Sea. This view is economic and technocratic and does not take into account a whole range of factors that support the view that the Sea should be preserved. The Sea has played a role in fisheries and transportation, and has supported the life of people there. Nor is it possible fully to estimate the consequences for nature and the economy of any human intervention that assumes the non-economic importance of the Aral Sea. The moral responsibility of our generation to preserve this vulnerable and unique natural legacy for our descendants is of greater importance. Moreover, we have just started to evaluate the total effect of cotton monoculture on nature and the economy. Several ways of dealing with the Aral Sea problem have emerged.

Coping with the Aral Sea problem


One long-standing scheme is to divert the waters of such Siberian rivers as the Ob, Irtysh, and Yenisey and to channel them southward to the Aral Sea region and to the desert. This reminds us of the words of Ivan Michurin: "We cannot wait for favors from nature; our task is to seize them from her" (Davydov, 1949). This plan has been cancelled after years of controversy about its cost and environmental consequences, but some local scientists are still hanging on to the idea. Another suggestion was to break up the glaciers of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains with nuclear explosions. The Amudarya, in its turn, would be topped up by water from the River Indus. Other plans include the construction of a water intake on the River Kabul, from which a pipeline would cross Pakistan and Afghanistan. These ideas may be tainted by gigantomania and are not realistic, especially at a time of economic crisis. However, such ideas are sure to survive.

Blame Moscow

A second reaction is to blame Moscow for ignorance and corruption. Central planners in Moscow no doubt calculated that by massive irrigation they could simultaneously develop their backward southern regions, provide enough jobs for the indigenous people, and have them serve Russia. Almost all the raw cotton was sent north for processing, and successive five-year plans required still more irrigated land. Because the plan provided the wrong incentives, quality and yields started to fall in 1980. People in the affected area - about 35 million of them - started to realize how much cotton slavery had diminished their lives. Moscow, suggesting that their hardship was their own fault, then sent a group of prosecutors and KGB to accuse local leaders of ignorance, mismanagement, and corruption. Even Gorbachev himself once criticized Uzbekistan for squandering water and not pulling its weight. Until the independence of the republics, the intellectuals of the region - especially writers and scientists were less willing to let the citizens of Central Asia take all the blame. Since independence, it has been clear that it is the citizens of Central Asia who have to suffer the hardships and pains.

A business-as-usual strategy

In the first four years of the 1980s, the Uzbek Agro-Industrial Complex received 10 billion rubles from Moscow. Between 1966 and 1984, 21 billion rubles were invested in the development of the water resources of Uzbekistan. A considerable amount of this money was spent on bribery. In the irrigated area of Central Asia, which comprises more than 9.4 million hectares, part of the drainage network did not function. This, together with too little attention to crop rotation, led to the salinization of large areas. As a result, the area sown to alfalfa decreased, while cotton became the single crop. This has led to a situation in which soil fertility has fallen off, the incidence of cotton-plant disease has increased, and the volume and quality of the harvest have declined.

In each republic, farmers are seeking their own solutions. Some are directing the drainage flow into the desert and natural depressions in the steppe. The local soils are mostly light-textured and very permeable to water. This anarchic dumping of drainage water is raising the groundwater level, creating additional problems for both rural and urban people. Several lakes have appeared that are making pastureland boggy and encouraging insects. Moreover, the salty and poisonous water seeps into the ground, and gets into freshwater wells. But every well, even the smallest, is very valuable. Uzbek President Islam Karimov first urged international cooperation to save the Aral Sea on the 60th anniversary of the city of Nukus December 1992, but he has not yet addressed the question of cutting back cotton cultivation, which consumes the most water but also supplies 80 per cent of the nation's hard currency earnings. Turkmenistan, a desert land entirely dependent on water from the Amudarya, embarked on a new irrigation plan in 1993 which envisages the cultivation of 1.6 million hectares. Turkmenistan's Minister of Water Economy and Supply has said that it is impossible to save the Aral Sea and that it will become a dry, dead sea in 30 years. Turkmenistan's Minister for Agriculture and Food claims that the project is a national priority, intended to achieve self-sufficiency in grain and other crops. These plans reflect the behaviour of those who have few ideas about what to do other than to pursue a business-as-usual strategy.

Involve international society

Cooperation with international society is the only way to cope with the environmental problems in this area. The first conference of heads of state in Central Asia on the problems of the Aral Sea was held in Kzyl-Orda in March of 1993, with the participation of the Russian Deputy Premier. The conference set up an International Aral Foundation (IAF) and an Inter-State Council for the Aral Basin headed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's President. Each of the [AF member countries was to contribute 1 per cent of its GNP annually to the Foundation. The conference also adopted an appeal to the United Nations. In January 1994, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan pledged to pay 1 per cent of their 1994 budgets into the fund (in Tajikistan the government faces a more severe crisis of civil war). Few financial statistics for each country are available, but Kazakhstan's GDP for 1994 was around 464.5 billion tenge and its national budget was around 80 billion tenge, and 1 per cent of these figures is US$72 million and US$12 million, respectively. The figures for Uzbekistan are US$10 billion for GDP and US$4 billion for national revenue, making the 1 per cent figures US$100 million and US$40 million, respectively.

Unfortunately, none of these countries was able to fulfil its pledge. Instead, responding to the setting-up of the IAF and the preceding appeal of the leaders, international organizations and foreign countries proposed financial and technical aid. In February 1993, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development prepared to provide technical and financial aid for environmental conservation projects in the area around the Aral Sea. In April, the German Red Cross decided to donate a water purification plant to Karakalpak victims. In May, Germany proposed DM 1.3 million for a comprehensive environmental survey and for water and soil research at the mouths of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers. In September, President Mitterand of France expressed his intention to participate in the Save Aral Project. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher promised a US$140 million aid package in October 1994, US$15 million of which was to improve the environment around the Aral Sea and the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing area. It was reported in January 1994 that India would give Uzbekistan US$500,000. Japan also pledged financial and technical aid in April 1994. The World Bank, having spent two years studying the problem, embarked on the development of costly projects. For the preparation of the programme, the World Bank granted US$41 million to the fund in November 1994.